Cyber Attacks Versus Operations in Ukraine

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For the past decade there has been a steady drumbeat that ‘cyberwar is coming’. Sometimes the parties holding these positions are in militaries and, in other cases, from think tanks or university departments that are trying to link kinetic-adjacent computer operations with ‘war’.

Perhaps the most famous rebuttal to the cyberwar proponents has been Thomas Rid’s Cyber War Will Not Take Place. The title was meant to be provocative and almost has the effect of concealing a core insight of Rid’s argument: cyber operations will continue to be associated with conflicts but cyber operations are unlikely to constitute (or lead to) out-and-out war on their own. Why? Because it is very challenging to prepare and launch cyber operations that have significant kinetic results at the scale we associate with full-on war.

Since the Russian Federation’s war of aggression towards Ukraine there have regularly been shocked assertions that cyberware isn’t taking place. A series of pieces by The Economist, as an example, sought to prepare readers for a cyberwar that just hasn’t happened. Why not? Because The Economist–much like other outlets!–often presumed that the cyber dimensions of the conflict in Ukraine would bear at least some resemblance to the long-maligned concept of a ‘cyber Pearl Harbour’: a critical cyber-enable strike of some sort would have a serious, and potentially devastating, effect on how Ukraine could defend against Russian aggression and thus tilt the balance towards Russian military victory.

As a result of the early mistaken understandings of cyber operations, scholars and experts have once more come out and explained why cyber operations are not the same as an imagined cyber Pearl Harbour situation, while still taking place in the Ukrainian conflict. Simultaneously, security and malware researchers have taken the opportunity to belittle International Relations theorists who have written about cyberwar and argued that these theorists have fundamentally misunderstood how cyber operations take place.

Part of the challenge is ‘cyberwar’ has often been popularly seen as the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and their associated military hardware being deployed into a foreign country. As noted by Rid in a recent op-ed, while some cyber operations are meant to be apparent others are much more subtle. The former might be meant to reduce the will to fight or diminish command and control capabilities. The latter, in contrast, will look a lot like other reconnaissance operations: knowing who is commanding which battle group, the logistical challenges facing the opponent, or state of infrastructure in-country. All these latter dimensions provide strategic and tactical advantages to the party who’s launched the surveillance operation. Operations meant to degrade capabilities may occur but will often be more subtle. This subtly can be a particularly severe risk in a conflict, such as if your ammunition convoy is sent to the wrong place or train timetables are thrown off with the effect of stymying civilian evacuation or resupply operations.1

What’s often seemingly lost in the ‘cyberwar’ debates–which tend to take place either between people who don’t understand cyber operations, those who stand to profit from misrepresentations of them, or those who are so theoretical in their approaches as to be ignorant of reality–is that contemporary wars entail blended forces. Different elements of those blends have unique and specific tactical and strategic purposes. Cyber isn’t going to have the same effect as a Grad Missile Launcher or a T-90 Battle Tank, but that missile launcher or tank isn’t going to know that the target it’s pointed towards is strategically valuable without reconnaissance nor is it able to impair logistics flows the same way as a cyber operation targeting train schedules. To expect otherwise is to grossly misunderstand how cyber operations function in a conflict environment.

I’d like to imagine that one result of the Russian war of aggression will be to improve the general population’s understanding of cyber operations and what they entail, and do not entail. It’s possible that this might happen given that major news outlets, such as the AP and Reuters, are changing how they refer to such activities: they will not be called ‘cyberattacks’ outside very nuanced situations now. In simply changing what we call cyber activities–as operations as opposed to attacks–we’ll hopefully see a deflating of the language and, with it, more careful understandings of how cyber operations take place in and out of conflict situations. As such, there’s a chance (hope?) we might see a better appreciation of the significance of cyber operations in the population writ-large in the coming years. This will be increasingly important given the sheer volume of successful (non-conflict) operations that take place each day.

  1. It’s worth recognizing that part of why we aren’t reading about successful Russian operations is, first, due to Ukrainian and allies’ efforts to suppress such successes for fear of reducing Ukrainian/allied morale. Second, however, is that Western signals intelligence agencies such as the NSA, CSE, and GCHQ, are all very active in providing remote defensive and other operational services to Ukrainian forces. There was also a significant effort ahead of the conflict to shore up Ukrainian defences and continues to be a strong effort by Western companies to enhance the security of systems used by Ukrainians. Combined, this means that Ukraine is enjoying additional ‘forces’ while, simultaneously, generally keeping quiet about its own failures to protect its systems or infrastructure. ↩︎